UNCW’s CREST campus aims to turn scientific research into revenue

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Locally grown lines of N.C. oysters, like the six-month-old versions seen here, are among the economically viable research underway now at UNCW's CREST facility. Photos by Hilary Snow.
Locally grown lines of North Carolina oysters, like the six-month-old versions seen here, are among the economically viable research underway now at UNCW’s CREST facility. Photos by Hilary Snow.

Something quite unique is growing down an unassuming quiet street just off Masonboro Loop Road in Wilmington.

Oysters, for one. And scallops. Some jellyfish. Coral. Also, Florida red tide, a harmful algal bloom that also happens to have properties potentially useful in treating cystic fibrosis.

Something else is thriving there, too–a collaboration among researchers and corporate entities that has the potential to stir up some local economic growth.

That site, nestled on the Intracoastal Waterway near Monkey Junction, is the location for UNC-Wilmington’s burgeoning CREST–the Campus for Research, Entrepreneurship, Service and Teaching.

What began about a decade ago as the university’s marine science center has developed into a powerhouse of scientific innovation. With the recent addition of the Marine Biotechnology in N.C. (MARBIONC) building–a facility that brings academics and business leaders together–CREST has taken the next step toward its ultimate goal of turning research into products.

Starting with the ‘basics’

If you think of each building at CREST as one step in the scientific process, director Daniel Baden said, then the first place to start is the Center for Marine Science.

There, Baden said, is where interdisciplinary basic and applied research takes place. Inside are faculty and students representing six science departments from the main campus.

He said CREST’s intermingling of departments at the Center for Marine Science is intentional.

“So, here you’ll see geologists next to biologists next to chemists,” he noted. “This allows them to do research work effectively and offers ways for people to collaborate together.”

There, baby jellyfish are growing alongside adult versions of the gelatinous animals. The creatures are part of one faculty member’s neurophysiological research.

“He is looking at how nerves fire off in jellyfish,” Baden noted.

CREST director Daniel Baden said educational outreach, like this interactive display, is a component of the research facility.
CREST director Daniel Baden said educational outreach, like this interactive display, is a component of the research facility.

As with everything at CREST, there is a practical application. Baden said neurophysiology in humans was first described in the 1930s through research on a giant squid axon.

Invertebrates like jellyfish and squids can help tell us a lot about our nerve impulses, he added.

The Center for Marine Science also houses a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) that can dive down 1,000 feet into the water. It was an ROV that discovered the wreckage of the Titanic, as well as the German battleship, Bismarck.

And the Center for Marine Science is a source of outreach. It provides lab space for public school students during field trips to the facility and houses the summer camp, Marine Quest.

In addition, the building’s Hall of Mentors holds audiences who attend the center’s quarterly “Planet Ocean” lecture series that features government representatives, nationally recognized speakers and UNCW faculty.

“Our scientists can stand up with the best scientists in the country,” Baden said. “This is just a service-oriented program we do for the public.”

From outreach to out in the field

The focus in the marine science building shifts from laboratory to the field in the adjacent Operations Building.

That facility houses UNCW’s shellfish hatchery, built in collaboration with the N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher, where faculty and students have, since 2012, grown oysters, clams and scallops.

But Baden said the hatchery’s function goes far beyond educational opportunities.

“It is an economic development facility focused on best practices for aquaculture,” he noted.

UNCW student Aubrey Benton processes fish net samples taken from the Chesapeake Bay to help determine the recently rehabilitated Poplar Island's progress.
UNCW student Aubrey Benton processes fish net samples taken from the Chesapeake Bay to help determine the recently rehabilitated Poplar Island’s progress.

Currently, Ami Wilbur is overseeing the development of domesticated oyster lines. She and her team of professors and students are working with four of the state’s oyster farms in that process.

“Right now, farmers are relying on oysters from another state. This facility is trying to create North Carolina oysters…Then we go out to the farms to see how they do,” Wilbur said.

Wilbur pointed to Virginia, which embarked on a similar initiative 15 years ago. After developing farm-thriving strains–basically, the biggest and best local oysters through selective reproduction–growers in that state have seen a huge boost in production.

“Now, 60 percent of market-size oysters can be ready in 15 months. Otherwise, it would only be 10 percent,” Wilbur said.

The first batch of oysters grown at the local shellfish hatchery is now out on farms around the state, where UNCW is currently monitoring their progress. Wilbur said this year, she is setting sights on nine different lines from four different locations.

“We are trying to push growth and survival rates,” Wilbur said.

And UNCW’s shellfish hatchery is also trying to turn the tide on local scallop production.

“We haven’t had an open fishery in a number of years in North Carolina,” Wilbur said.

In fact, she added, most of the scallops you’ll find in local grocery stores are being grown in hatcheries in other regions of the world, such as China.

Translating science

Baden said it’s that kind of innovation–with an end goal of economic impact–that remains essential to the mission of CREST.

And that mission is coming to fruition in the MARBIONC facility. That building, which opened in November, puts corporate entities in close contact with researchers to stimulate the creation new, marketable marine-based products and technologies.

“There are no courses taught here because businesses here need to have corporate space,” Baden said.

Student Paige Millsap sorts oysters in CREST's Operations Building.
Student Paige Millsap sorts oysters in CREST’s Operations Building.

Since opening last month, one business–OCIS Biotech, a skincare line made from marine products–has already moved in, leasing labs from the university. Baden said another is in the “letter of intent phase,” and six more are lining up to inhabit the remaining nine available spaces.

The building was designed to accommodate individual industry needs while also encouraging collaboration. Laboratories are “infinitely movable,” meaning equipment can easily be reconfigured for each occupant’s needs without the need for noisy renovations that could disturb others nearby.

And corporate labs are housed on one side of the building and faculty researchers, on the other, with meeting spaces in between.

“The idea is to create that interaction between business and faculty,” Baden said.

That’s because faculty is invested in product-oriented science as their corporate neighbors.

Inside MARBIONC, UNCW is working on the development of a drug, made from extracting a compound in Florida red tide algae, that could become part of a drug used in the treatment of cystic fibrosis. Another compound in the otherwise toxic algae is thought to be able to enhance the effectiveness of other drugs, Baden said.

“They are like little drug stores, each one of them,” he said, pointing to the rows of jars containing Florida red tide. “We hope to identify and develop them to the point that a pharmaceutical company is interested in them…This is the first time we are doing something like this.”

It’s exemplary of CREST–an in-house research project that ultimately becomes a product with profitability for both the university and the region at large.

“What we are interested in is translational science. So, you’re taking basic and applied science and trying to turn it into a product…the idea is we are trying to get industries interested,” he said. “Now this corporate funding becomes possible. As development progresses further and further, we get businesses closer and closer to [us]…We want to develop partnerships and make our resources available to corporations, as well. My hope is to bring in or help start up local industries but also ones from [across the country] and even internationally.”

Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at (910) 772-6341 or hilary.s@hometownwilmington.com.